In an age dominated by gargantuan goalkeepers, shorties like Jon Busch stand tall despite their stature.
Not as renowned as undersized colleague Nick Rimando, who just happens to be the MLS all-time shutout king, Busch has nevertheless made a strong case for those 5-foot-10 or thereabouts. Five seasons in the USL (Worcester, Carolina, Hampton Roads, Hershey) honed him for the rigors of MLS, and after stints with Columbus, Chicago and San Jose, he’s back with the Fire at age 38 to back up and mentor Sean Johnson, who towers over Busch at 6-foot-3 and is chock-full of athleticism.
Still, the small guy who used to jump over paint cans in his basement by the hour to build strength and spring has done all right. He’s fourth on the all-time shutout list with 82 -- Rimando is tops at 116 -- and was Goalkeeper of the Year in 2008. Last year, he tied a Quakes team record and led the league with 137 saves, 26 more than Luis Robles and Steve Clark.
He doesn’t play the size card, per se, but he’s been beset by his share of doubters.
“If you look at my career,” he says, “I think a lot of my motivation comes from people doubting me and things like that and maybe not being the No. 1 right away when I get to a certain team but the drive that I have to prove people wrong, to prove that I can still do it is one of the things that gets me up in the morning and gets me going. Adds a little fire in the belly, if you will.”
An arm infection sidelined Johnson last weekend, so Busch got the start in Chicago’s home opener, a 1-0 loss to Vancouver. It was his 297th MLS appearance, fourth on the all-time list behind Kevin Hartman (416), Rimando (372) and former San Jose teammate Joe Cannon (342). During the 2010 season, Busch took over in goal for Joe Cannon and played 150 games for the Quakes.
As of last November, even though his contract was about to expire, he thought the alliance would continue. Instead, during a quick meeting shortly before Thanksgiving with new head coach Dominic Kinnear and general manager John Doyle, he found out differently.
“When they announced Dom,” says Busch, “I wasn’t too concerned about it, because I was playing well and I had conversations the last two years with John Doyle -- he actually came to me with it -- about playing out my career in San Jose, retire as a Quake, and join the coaching staff in some capacity, with the first team or the youth academy with Chris Leitch.
“I thought we were working toward a bigger goal, if you will. So it was quite a shock when it happened. I had a meeting with Dom and John just before Thanksgiving. It was a short, 10-minute meeting and all they said was, ‘We’re not going to protect you [in the Expansion Draft], we’re not going to offer you a new contract, go find a new team.’”
Once the shock wore off, he and his wife, Nicole, wondered what to do next. He passed through the Re-Entry Draft unclaimed . The Christmas holidays came and went. His online business selling goalkeeper gloves (www.hpgoalkeeping.com) was a side income at best. When offered an opportunity in January to rejoin former Quakes head coach Frank Yallop in Chicago, he took it.
“It caught me off-guard and when I asked what was the reason, because I thought I played well last year, the only response I got was they thought the team needed a facelift,” he says of his departure. “It’s happened to me before. Playing pro sports, this is the business we sign up for. We completely understand it. I’ve had it happen two times before with other coaches and I have no issues with it whatsoever. Dom’s a great coach and he’s going to make this decisions. It’s part of sports.”
Yallop had brought Busch to San Jose after the Fire waived him just prior to the start of the 2010 season, and said when the deal was announced, “It’s great to have Jon re-join the Fire. I worked with him over the years in San Jose, so I know that he has a great work ethic. He’s had a fantastic career, so I'm pleased that we will be adding a quality goalkeeper.”
Players come and go and it’s all part of the business. Busch has been through it before. After all, the Fire had dropped him just a few days before the 2010 season opener partially to open the door for then-rookie Johnson, who by the end of that season had taken the starter’s job from Andrew Dykstra and has held it ever since.
Johnson’s national team aspirations bring back memories for Busch. He got his only cap a decade ago in March 2005, when he and the USA blanked Colombia, 3-0, at Cal State Fullerton in Southern California. Pat Noonan, Chad Marshall, and Clint Mathis scored for the USA. The crowd was 7,086 (that same night, about 91,000 fans watched Mexico play Argentina at the L.A. Coliseum).
A few days after his international debut, Busch found out he’d on a plane to Mexico later that month. Bruce Arena had chosen him to back up Kasey Keller for a Hexagonal qualifier in the Azteca Stadium. Busch says he kept his focus pretty well until about midway through the warmups as the setting and a crowd of about 100,000 fanaticos started to register.
“There was a moment -- I still remember it vividly -- where time literally stood still,” he recalls. “It just hit me at that moment. I just thought, ‘God forbid, if anything should happen to Kasey, I’m going to have to go into this game.’ The nerves just hit my stomach and I think I prayed for the rest of the game that nothing happened to Kasey because it was such an important game and such an amazing atmosphere.”
Two months later, while back in Southern California, a torn ACL suffered against the Galaxy ended his season. He played just eight games in 2006 for the Crew, which waived him at the end of the season. Toronto FC, preparing for its first MLS season, claimed him only to re-waive him. He got three games for the Fire in 2007 and took over as starter the next season when Matt Pickens went to England. He was Goalkeeper of the Year in 2008 but after one more year was again out of a job until Yallop brought him to San Jose.
“Frank knows me,” he says. "He knows I’m going to come in and work hard every day and push whoever’s in front of me. I’ll be prepared to play if Frank calls my number.”
Busch believes Yallop and a revamped roster can turn things around in Chicago, which appeared in three MLS Cup finals from 1998 to 2003 and fell away from contender status after he departed. In the past five seasons it’s only reached the playoffs once; it lost to Houston, 2-1, in the 2012 wild-card round. The club has a strong tradition that he thinks can be revived.
“I’m a big kind of history/sports guy, so I like being in a club where players like Chris Armas, and Peter Nowak, and C.J. Brown, and Logan Pause, guys that I’ve looked up to during my career, I like being a part of that,” he says.Our goal moving forward is to get this organization back to where it was when I was here the first time. We were in conference finals, we lost in a penalty-kick shootout in the SuperLiga final [to Tigres in 2009], we were challenging for things.
“It’s been four or five years since anything like that has happened. That’s part of the reason I wanted to come back, to help the organization get back to those good old days.”
And he wishes good days for the San Jose fans, who in three of his four full seasons watched him post more than 100 saves. Aside from the Supporters' Shield season of 2012, there were far more losses than victories and often it would be Busch, as Quakes Man of the Match, answering questions in the post-game TV interviews. His return marks the first MLS game at the brand-new Avaya Stadium.
“It’ll be a great reunion and I’m also excited to see the fans again," he says. "The fans treated me fantastic for five years and kind of made me part of their family. I was sad I didn’t get to give them a proper thank you for everything they’ve done for me. It will be exciting to see them again and hopefully get a good reception and be able to say thank you for five wonderful years. They were so supportive of me.”